"The Ramble" project would put focus on Broad Creek, town of Laurel's future

By Tony E. Windsor

A major collaborative effort being considered in Laurel is committed to revitalizing the community's downtown area in a way that will use the Broad Creek as a central theme. During a recent meeting at the Laurel Public Library, representatives of a variety of local and state entities shared a visual concept of what has been termed the "The Ramble." The project has brought together the creative energies of the University of Delaware's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, College of Arts and Sciences and Sea Grant Delaware in conjunction with the Town of Laurel, the Laurel Redevelopment Corporation (LRC) and other local organizations and individuals.

According to the final design project plans and proposal document, the purpose of this project was to, "work with the community of Laurel to suggest ideas supporting the revitalization of the downtown area and provide specific landscape design recommendations for the waterfront.

Three specific objectives for this project were: to improve the sense of connectedness through a user-friendly greenway extending between existing creekside and river view parks; to design a highly visible residential project, consistent with the architectural style of the town and ecological restoration values; to propose a mixed-use design alternative for Thompson Block, to be included in the long-term vision of the Laurel Redevelopment Corporation.

The proposed recommendations were crafted after three distinct frameworks including ecological design, place branding, and collaboration, with the purpose of improving the quality of life of residents and attracting visitors and business owners. The Ramble is a conceptual design that connects the Broad Creek waterfront from Roger C. Fisher Memorial River Park on the west side of Laurel, down through the center of town and out to the area of east of Delaware Avenue just past Laurel Towne and the Broad Creek Villas.

This waterfront "ramble" shows a greenway along the creek front that would utilize brick and natural pathways to connect a kayak and canoe launching area, residential cottages and promenade, a playground, a village green with possible coffee, newsstand, and ice cream shops, all with the goal of placing the emphasis on Laurel's small town charm and natural beauty.

Brian Shannon of the Laurel Redevelopment Corporation, which is a major participant in the collaboration, said the design being unveiled during the Thursday, Sept. 18, meeting is a "first step in what has been termed the reimagining of Laurel." Shannon said the LRC believes the plan is just the starting point in what can be a "huge step forward for the town of Laurel," and a benefit for the citizens, businesses and Laurel's future.

Shannon said the LRC was formed in 1992 as a non-profit corporation with a mission to enhance the quality of life in Laurel by obtaining, rehabilitating and revitalizing properties to help increase the economic development of the town. "I believe this plan is consistent with our [LRC] mission and will help bring new energy and many other positive aspects to the town," Shannon said.

Also on hand for the presentation was Laurel Councilman and a founding member of the LRC, Don Phillips. He went on to share the history of the LRC and pointed out that the group had over 100 original donors who raised in excess of $300,000 privately to start the organization's work. He said the LRC combined that money with grants and economic developments funds over the past 22 years to carry out major revitalization efforts mainly in the downtown area of Laurel. He added that LRC has assets of over $4 million, zero debts, and owns 20 retail businesses. He said the "incubator" businesses owned by the organization "bring new products, new people and leadership to Laurel." Many of the businesses owned by the LRC are located in Laurel Towne, including the building that houses the Abbott's Grille restaurant located along the Broad Creek.

Phillips said the LRC has always felt that the Broad Creek is a natural resource in Laurel that is an underused asset. He said the LRC's original focus was the downtown area of Laurel up to the river. It has since expanded its reach to include the river front and is about three-quarters complete in its work. He said in addition to public lands owned and maintained by the town of Laurel, the LRC controls about 98 to 99 percent of the Broad Creek shoreline in the town.

"When this project is complete, the Broad Creek shoreline will be a permanent creek side park available to the public for generations and generations and generations to come. The philosophy from that point was to build commercial and residential properties facing this park land and river on both sides of the creek. That would benefit Laurel with increased tax revenue and housing that is unavailable at this time, and just be beneficial all the way around."

Phillips lauded the Laurel town government for its involvement and cooperation over the years in helping with a variety of projects, including taking over the maintenance of park lands such as Janosik Park and Venables' Park, which were owned and improved on by the LRC before turning them over to the town for public use.

On hand for the "Ramble" presentation were representatives of the University of Delaware's College of Agriculture & Natural Resources; College of Arts and Sciences and Sea Grant Delaware. The university has worked with the LRC, and Town of Laurel to design the conceptual plans for the Broad Creek Greenway and Waterfront Redevelopment.

Ed Lewandowski, Coastal Communities Development specialist, told the audience that the town of Laurel is fortunate to have the Broad Creek and surrounding natural beauty. "You have a multi-million dollar resource flowing through the middle of your town. The Laurel community is steeped in rich history and culture," he said. "This is a wonderful narration to share and we feel this project will help tell your story."

Lewandowski said the "Ramble" project is a way to provide a river walk along the Broad Creek shoreline that will be "safe, practical and make open space available for recreation and designed in a way to impact all five senses." He pointed out that the planning that has gone into the project design has been a valuable collaboration made up primarily of the town government, the private sector, the LRC and the Laurel residents.

He said University of Delaware Doctoral candidate Lorelly Solano of the School of Public Policy and Administration was involved in the research of Laurel's local history via its community members, including University of Delaware students who live in Laurel. The information was derived to help plan the "Ramble" in a way that was most conducive to the community both from an economic development and aesthetically pleasing perspective.

The research gained from this study helped Jules Bruck, Associate Professor of Landscape Design for the U of D's Department of Plat and Soil Sciences, put the conceptual designs for the greenway and waterfront project into actual artist renderings. The renderings were on display at the Laurel Library meeting. Bruck told the audience that giving the title of "The Ramble" for the project came from viewing the shoreline walkway as a way to enjoy the entirety of the Broad Creek water front while "walking quietly and peacefully among the beauty of plant life in greenery ramble."

She said this project provides more than simply aesthetic benefits. "A lot of this has to do with environmental benefit to the area," Bruck said. "But I've been very interested in making sure that we represent the town in a complete way and that we capture the voice of the community." The U of D designers are also making sure the reimagining project meets ongoing goals to improve water quality both locally in the river and as part of a regional effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The multi-faceted conceptual designs of the Ramble walkway includes a number of design options that include such creative and versatile dynamics as: Victorian homes and cottages arranged in a cul-de-sac around a plaza featuring a promenade with fountain, wildflowers and a gazebo reminiscent of religious retreats and camps that are a part of Sussex County history; walking paths located parallel to the Broad Creek with native trees to control erosion; shops facing the road with residential space in the second floor and solar panels on the roofs; docks available for kayaks and canoe launches; centrally located gazebo with free information about the town and would also serve as a bandstand; a playground for children and families; development of a Village Green to utilize as a central place to bring members of the community and visitors alike together and offer a commercial mix of restaurant, clothing, books and newspaper stand, café, grocery, ice cream shop, brewery, and a gym; an "Art Loop," for local artists to rotate art work to be displayed and highlighted in a permanent manner in an area that can also be a gathering point

Don Phillips concluded the meeting by suggesting that given the many components of the Ramble greenway and waterfront development project there are numerous opportunities for involvement from the community.

"The idea that we may have such summer time projects like ice cream shops, hot dog stands, and kayak and canoe launch facilities, provide a great opportunity for making money," he said. "I have always envisioned that we might have an Entrepreneurial Club in the high school. These kids in their sophomore and senior years could make some serious money to help fund things like the senior prom. The students could manage these shops and perhaps the Chamber of Commerce or school could help sponsor the program."

Phillips said the waterfront redevelopment project along the Broad Creek project provides many opportunities for community partnerships that can really help support economic redevelopment and preservation of the Broad Creek shoreline and area open space.

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